I love movies about rock bands. I will admit to a bias having been a musician for a number of years, but I’ve found that the relationships band-mates share with each other are ripe with narrative possibility. Balancing one creative vision with different personalities can be problematic, so when a group finds that middle ground and produces art that is both honest and expressive the result is nothing short of miraculous. However, the road to achieve that balance is fraught with obstacles that can either enhance the drive of the band or dismantle it altogether. The following movies are, in my opinion, great examples into the different challenges and rewards of creating music. I’m sure there are many that I missed, so feel free to shoot me your own lists and I’ll be sure to check them out. In the meantime, enjoy!
Nick’s Picks: Best Rock Band Flicks!
That Thing You Do (1996-Directed by Tom Hanks):
It’s a classic narrative: small town friends start a band and get caught up in the exploding fame. What’s great about this movie is the setting. It could reasonably take place anywhere and anytime, but the 60s was such a unique transitional period for music when talent spoke for itself. The film starts out in garages, basements, and talent shows. Soon, things blossom for The Wonders as they get bigger gigs like festivals and television spots. Their reactions to their blossoming fame are different, as the characters are well fleshed out and well-acted. They filmmakers didn’t pull any punches with the title track from which the band’s success is drawn. Written by Adam Schlesinger (the bass player from the band Fountains of Wayne), interesting chord changes, buoyant melodies, and a killer drum intro propel this group to stardom. The song will not leave your head once you hear it, be warned!
Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010-Directed by Edgar Wright):
Edgar Wright knows the importance of a nuanced soundtrack. Even though one could argue this film is mostly a love story between a bassist and a bohemian, this movie knocks the music out of the park. Scott Pilgrim’s band “Sex Bob-Omb” chugs out high energy garage rock (written by the incomparable musician Jeff Beck) using fuzzy bass, pounding drums, and commanding swaths of dirty acoustic guitar. The other groups featured in the movie might have less screen time, but their styles are fully developed and inventive. You can tell a lot of thought was put into the writing of this music and that what makes this movie authentic. The humor is goofy but poignant while the video-game inspired effects add nice color and speed to the story. This movie proves that both love and great music are worth fighting for.
Rockstar (2001-Directed by Stephen Herek):
It’s a Cinderella story about a devoted tribute band singer who ends up leading the very group he worships. Based on the true story of Tim “Ripper” Owens who replaced singer Rob Halford in Judas Priest, this movie shows a small-time musician what the industry is really like as he stumbles into leading one of the biggest bands in the world. The script has a healthy amount of cynicism, the music (80s hard rock) feels authentic to the era, and the glitter of fame is well-balanced with scenes of depravity. One of the nicer touches to this movie are all the cameos from well-known musicians; they are almost too many to name. It gives the film a nice sense of immersion and honesty. It suffers from a few cliches, to be sure, but it’s definitely under-rated and worth a watch.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001-Directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan):
This is somewhat of a guilty pleasure. The entire movie is essentially an advertisement for a staggering amount of mainstream products. This wouldn’t bother me as much if the overall message of the film is against “selling out” to big corporations, but it’s so heavy handed that it becomes quite comical. The plot is formulaic, the jokes tend towards the low-brow, but the music is so darn catchy it’s hard to not like this movie. Some of the band’s songs are straightforward pop tunes; three to four chords max, generic lyrics, and three and a half minutes long in length (Spin Around, Three Small Words). On the contrary, the composers snuck in a handful of tunes that have a notable amount of thought put into their composition (Come On, Shapeshifter, Pretend to be Nice). Starting out as just “The Pussycats”, a small town power pop trio desperately tries to nudge their way into the music industry. By complete happenstance they achieve their goal but not without changes to the very core of their friendship. Like I said, don’t watch it for the compelling narrative. The music, though, is quintessential pop rock and worth a listen.
Bandwagon (1996-Directed by John Schultz):
While not as well-known as many of the other films on this list, it is one of my favorites of all time. Understated and intimate, it depicts a struggling band slowly gaining clout while controlling their personal anxieties. The front man/songwriter is painfully timid on stage, the drummer is an incessant fountain of banal conversation, the lead guitarist is lost in his head as well as drugs, and the bassist is a ticking time bomb of hostility. Led by a mysterious and wise road manager, the group known as “Circus Monkey” engage a string of dive bars and house parties while learning how to overcome their personal challenges. Things eventually pick up momentum, and the band realizes the world of big business in music is not what they thought it would be. Their music is described as “ultra-pop” in the film, and is extremely well composed. Heavy guitars carry lofty and emotive vocals over a swinging rhythm section, and their popular song “It Couldn’t be Anne” written by Greg Kendall perfectly captures the post-grunge alternative movement. It’s a hard movie to find (YouTube has it in sections), but highly recommended.
Green Room (2015-Directed by Jeremy Saulnier):
Being a huge horror movie fan, I was especially happy to hear about this one. Anton Yelchin (R.I.P) makes a perfectly relatable character in this gripping and grisly tale of a gig gone wrong. This is the story of a scrappy punk rock band known as “The Ain’t Rights”. While on the road finishing off a lackluster tour, they witness a crime at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. The movie then becomes a story of their survival and the owner of the bar (the always great Patrick Stewart) viciously trying to keep the situation under his control. It’s brutal, bleak, and bloody, but well-acted and never gratuitous. The script is sharp, the cinematography sleek, and the roaring soundtrack carries with it a perfect balance of intensity and calm. This film reminds me of how primitive our reactions to music can be, and perhaps how important it is to know your audience.
Almost Famous (2000-Directed by Cameron Crowe):
While this movie certainly has an incredible soundtrack, it’s the performances of the actors in this film that drive the story. Thanks to screenwriter Cameron Crowe, the script really shines. Everyone delivers three dimensional performances and the chemistry amongst the cast truly shows. Of particular note: Frances McDormand plays an overly concerned mother, Billy Crudup is an egocentric guitarist, and Jason Lee is an excitable lead singer. Through these believable and unique portrayals we explore what compels us to covet a musician’s lifestyle. With all of the glamour, it makes sense to balance with a dark side and Crowe speaks from experience (himself a music writer early in his career). There is a perfect balance of humor and drama; possibly more so on the lighthearted side but there is definitely some emotional resonance after viewing.
School of Rock (2003-Directed by Richard Linklater):
The importance of arts in education is always a strong subject, and Linklater wields Jack Black’s affable charm like a Flying V. As polarizing as his performances can be to some, this is arguably his best work. He plays a struggling rocker whose exuberance gets him kicked out of his band. Feeling pressure to get a “real job”, he lands a gig at a strict private school and begins to educate his students in the art of rock and roll (which is not exactly part of the curriculum). Jack Black is a natural showman, and watching him guide his classroom is both hilarious and endearing as they try to hide their lessons from parents and the administration. A solid soundtrack from some of history’s most notable rockers carries the story along nicely. The best part of this film, though, is the message that art and expression are just as important to developing minds as other subjects.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008-Directed by Sacha Gervasi):
This one tugs at the heart strings. Normally I veer away from documentaries but this is so well made and authentic it’s hard not to root for these Canadian metal rockers. After experiencing 15 minutes of fame in the 80s, the group Anvil struggles to find adequate footing in a music industry that doesn’t exactly cater to musicians of a more advanced age. Their struggle is not one of song writing, as their music is both passionate and well-crafted. The major obstacles they face are poor representation and recording which unfortunately hold them back from fully getting the recognition they deserve. Still, their dream carries them on throughout the years and they continue to write and perform whenever they can, never losing hope and determination. Testimonials from other legendary rockers in the film give it gravitas. This is a must watch for any film-lover, not only musicians.
Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny (2006-Directed by Liam Lynch):
Yet another Jack Black classic, this is what I would call a “modern musical”. The songs are all written by Kyle Gass and Jack Black with their absurd sense of humor giving the story a nice originality. While not as recognized as bigger musical movies like West Side Story or Guys and Dolls, the role of the soundtrack is just as crucial in portraying the story of two schlubby buskers. Bouncing from one scenario to the next, the duo known as Tenacious D are trying to locate a legendary guitar pick forged from Satan’s tooth so their music can be enhanced by demonic power. This is not exactly based on a true story, and possibly requires a particular sense of humor to appreciate it, but the music written for the movie is hilarious and head-banging. Of particular note is their final battle with Satan himself, played by the incomparable Dave Grohl.
This is Spinal Tap (1984-Directed by Rob Reiner):
No respectable list of band movies (or comedies in general) would exclude this timeless classic. It portrays a group of hyper-narcissistic rock stars as they struggle to remain relevant while shrinking shows compete with their inflated egos. As hapless as these delusional characters clearly are, you can’t help but root for their absurd dreams of grandeur and follow them down self-important rabbit holes. The humor is dry, the dialogue is entirely improvised, and the original music written for and performed by the actual actors over thirty years ago still holds it own. You can watch it is a mock-umentary, a comedy, or even a tragedy, but the fact remains this movie is one of a kind. This is why my list of films has eleven candidates; it gives it that extra “push over the cliff”.
Thanks for reading, and I hope everyone checks these movies out. Again, feel free to send me your own list of films and I’ll be sure to give them a watch. Stay tuned for more Nick’s Picks!
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